The big screen is getting bigger — and bigger.
The industry's largest theater chains are bulking up with extra-wide screens in the latest push by exhibitors to distinguish themselves from other forms of entertainment.
This fall, the former Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood will unveil one of the largest screens in the country: a 94-foot-wide Imax screen that no doubt would have impressed showman Sid Grauman himself.
Not to be outdone, Cinemark Holdings Inc., the third-largest U.S. chain, plans to bring its own Extreme Digital Cinema brand to its new multiplex at the South Bay Pavilion in Carson, which will include a 72-foot-wide, wall-to-wall XD screen.
Along with amenities such as in-theater dining, stadium seating and 3-D films, the giant digital screens reflect an ongoing effort to give moviegoers more choices and attract more repeat business at a time when long-term theatrical attendance in the U.S. has flattened.
"It's all about the sizzle, it's all about the showmanship," said Terrell Mayton, marketing director for Carmike Cinemas Inc. of Columbus, Ga., the nation's fourth-largest theater chain. "When you've got an experience that you can't duplicate in the home setting, that's going to encourage more people to come to the theaters more often."
The bigger venues also come with a bigger price for consumers, typically $2 to $5 more than a conventional ticket (depending on whether it's a 2-D or 3-D movie), giving circuits an additional source of revenue.
A report last year by exhibition industry research firm Dodona Research in Britain predicted that worldwide admissions for theaters with large screens will reach 170 million by 2016, up from 42 million in 2011, representing an additional $850 million in business for theater chains.
These new theaters, with better sound and with screens typically about 20% to 40% larger than conventional ones, go by various acronyms — BigD, XD, RPX and ETX — and have a common goal: to give consumers another incentive to watch movies in the multiplex as theaters face growing competition for viewing in the home.
Cinemark says its XD screens generated 5% of box-office ticket sales in the first quarter even though they represent just 1.9% of the chain's circuit. The Plano, Texas, chain has 120 XD screens worldwide and intends to add as many as 40 more by the end of the year.
"Nearly all of our new theaters include an XD auditorium, and we plan to continue pursuing our XD premium large format given its success, studio acceptance and patron preference," said James Meredith, head of marketing and communications for Cinemark USA. "We create an environment that cannot be replicated in the home."
Carmike has 18 BigD screens, including one in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that is 93 feet wide and 3 1/2 stories tall, and plans to add four more this year.
The nation's largest theater chain, Regal Entertainment, opened its first RPX screen in Manhattan in 2010 and now has 43 of them nationwide, including theaters in Irvine, Burbank, Corona and Ontario. "RPX is like choosing first class at the movies," Regal said in a news release.
"We're looking to grow them aggressively," said Ken Thewes, chief marketing officer for Regal Entertainment Group, a Knoxville, Tenn., company that operates the Edwards and United Artists theaters. "With RPX we can put more movie on the screen."
The roll out, which has accelerated in the last two years, has been motivated in part by the success of Imax, the big-screen Canadian company that has rapidly expanded its footprint in North America and around the world with the success of such hit movies as "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avengers."
The major circuits all have joint venture deals to show Imax movies in their theaters. But the chains also have been eager to develop their own branded extra-large screens so they can capture a larger share of tickets sales for themselves.
In exchange for supplying its equipment, Imax charges a fee to exhibitors and also imposes certain restrictions on what locations can screen movies in the Imax format and how long those movies play in a given theater.
"We love Imax, but there are limitations," Thewes said. "We've got more flexibility around what we can play in what auditorium."
Not surprisingly, the acceleration of the large-format screens has created some friction with Imax. Cinemark in late 2009 sued Imax, seeking a court ruling that it wasn't violating Imax patents for converting its venues to giant-screen theaters.
Imax fired back, accusing Cinemark of attempting to "reproduce the entire trademarked Imax experience" with the XD product.
They settled the court fight in January 2011 by agreeing to dismiss their respective suits.
Imax Chief Executive Richard Gelfond says he doesn't see the rival screens as a threat to his company, and he cites the fact that Imax has something other wide-screen formats don't: an unmatched brand, as well as close relationships with filmmakers such as "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan.
"The Imax brand really means something to consumers," Gelfond said. "When you hear 'Man of Steel' is going to be shown in Imax, it evokes a certain image in people's minds."
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